Staying the Course
It was founded during turbulent times and faced hostility at every turn. Yet MIFA not only prevailed but today celebrates 40 years of service.
"We were naïve but well-intentioned. We saw a city overwhelmed by urban problems. With all that was happening in the nation, and the injustices right under our nose, we knew we had to help."
Reverend Frank McRae, retired pastor of St. John's United Methodist Church, is speaking of MIFA (Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association), an organization that he helped found amid discord and turmoil, and one that marks its 40th anniversary this year. For those who know MIFA as Memphis' largest social service agency, the fact that it has survived four decades may come as no surprise. But there are people, like McRae and others, who recall how hard it was to overcome the stigma and struggles of those early years.
MIFA was founded on September 15, 1968 — just a few months after the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. — when 30 representatives of various church denominations met at St. Mary's Episcopal Cathedral in downtown Memphis. Their goal was to advocate for the poor and oppressed, and to attack racism and ignorance, with the sword and spirit of organized religion.
But local churches, city fathers, and citizens in general hardly sympathized with MIFA's cause. Already outraged by ministers who had carried the cross to City Hall after King's death, many viewed MIFA's leaders with pure animosity. "We were 'communist.' We were suspect. We were called Mafia instead of MIFA," says McRae.
Yet, thanks to the small band of clergy and lay people who persevered in the face of bitter odds, their beleaguered brain-child put down roots and blossomed into an organization that today has 4,000 volunteers, 150 employees, and a $9 million budget — and which reaches 60,000 needy individuals in a four-county area.
MIFA's founders had originally hoped for a membership and funding base from individual churches, but when soliciting for money, they hit dead-ends. Pastors shied away from the words "interracial" and "ecumenical," and refused to commit funds to "advocacy."
Eventually support came from national church denominations outside of Memphis, and the money was sufficient to hire, in May 1969, a full-time director — a minister named Berkeley Poole from Jackson, Tennessee — and to rent a tiny midtown office. During those early years, MIFA sponsored a few programs, including an Afro-American Studies Conference and a task force on juvenile delinquency. But when Reverend Henry Starks — a black minister who had been arrested several times during the sanitation strike that brought King to Memphis — urged MIFA to study the high number of African-American youths killed by police, all hell broke loose, with clergy receiving threatening phone calls and the police chief refusing to cooperate.
By 1972, the first director had resigned, and MIFA was barely treading water. "It had no money, it had no power, it had no army," says McRae. "And I declared it dead." Recalling that moment as a dark time in his life, McRae says he's glad that other board members took charge. They turned to Reverend William Jones, an Episcopalian minister from Memphis who led another group known as ACTS — Association for Christian Training in Service. Jones had been involved in MIFA's founding, and now, at his recommendation, its board voted to recruit a new director.
That director, Gid Smith, brought excitement, vision, and a "genius for organization," says McRae. Shifting gears from advocacy to delivery of services, and often working for weeks without a paycheck, Smith and his part-time staff sought grant money from local foundations and federal agencies. Their first federally funded grant was Project MEET, which allowed MIFA to carry elderly shut-ins to churches and community centers where they could receive a balanced meal.
Smith also recruited volunteers through the federal VISTA program, and these volunteers designed and launched such projects as home-delivered meals (now known as Meals on Wheels), the Memphis Food Bank (now an independent organization), and emergency housing for families.
Smith eventually left MIFA and headed the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis until his retirement a few years ago. Looking back at that era, McRae says of Smith, "Gid was a gift to MIFA."
McRae also credits the organization's strength to Margaret Craddock, who has been executive director since 1988. Just one program that has expanded under her leadership is transitional housing. Starting with 10 single-family homes known as Estival Place, MIFA Housing Opportunities now consists of 100 units primarily in the 38126 and 38104 Zip codes. Designed as a 12-month transitional shelter, the housing program provides case management to each family and steers them on the path to independent living.
Today, as the cost of food and fuel skyrocket, the number of people seeking help from MIFA has tripled from last year. "We're also seeing a growing number of elderly, as baby boomers age," says Craddock, "and more people facing domestic violence, living from crisis to crisis."
Despite the organization's serious mission, Craddock emphasizes the staff camaraderie that reflects the same spirit of mutual trust that brought MIFA's founders together. "We enjoy coming to work, and we never know what we're going to face," says Craddock. "But everybody mobilizes around the crisis of the day."
McRae sees MIFA as the "mother that people turn to when they have problems." And he smiles when he observes what church congregations now offer, such as food pantries and community meals. "MIFA made those programs legitimate," he says. "Its mentality pervaded the faith groups. I believe that mentality has been MIFA's crowning achievement."
A GUIDE TO VOLUNTEERING IN MEMPHIS
Many Memphians and Mid-Southerners depend on the daily efforts of our city's volunteers to survive. While the following listing does not include every philanthropic organization in Memphis, you're bound to find an opportunity to donate your time, whether it's feeding the homeless, walking a dog, tutoring a child, or befriending a lonely senior citizen.
Volunteer Coordinating Organizations
Hands on Memphis
Hands on Memphis creates and leads projects that improve the lives of people in the community. Working with dozens of local nonprofit agencies, community groups, and neighborhood associations, HOM provides them with managed, planned monthly programs that are led by committed and trained volunteers. This allows busy, working individuals the opportunity to find their niche in the volunteer community, whether it's in preschool literacy, environmental cleanups, or hunger and homelessness. (523-2425, ext. 1221, handsonmemphis.org)
Metropolitan Inter-Faith ASSOCIATION (MIFA)
Founded in 1968 (see main story, p. 191), MIFA has numerous programs that tackle homelessness, education, nutrition, teen job training, minor home modifications, and legal and financial concerns for more than 60,000 people each year. MIFA's programs give individuals a chance to live independently with hope and dignity. MIFA depends on support from the com-munity for volunteer time, leadership, and donations. (271-6432), mifa.org)
Volunteer Memphis develops, promotes, and supports volunteerism in the Memphis area and connects people with opportunities to serve. Working with nonprofits, churches, schools, and other groups, it engages volunteers to make community programs stronger. It also provides training and support to organizations and offers assistance to individuals seeking to match their skills with a place to serve. Its website has a monthly calendar of activities and a searchable database of volunteer opportunities. (523-2425, volunteermemphis.org)
Animal Protection Association Spay and Neuter Clinic
This nonprofit provides affordable spay/neuter services to Memphis and the tri-state area. Volunteers are needed to help check in animals for surgery, monitor them, assist in post-surgical recovery, explain after-care needs to their owners, and help with cleanup. (324-3202, spaymemphis.com)
House of Mews
House of Mews is a nonprofit cat sanctuary and gift shop dedicated to the rescue and care of abandoned cats and kittens in Memphis. Volunteers are needed to feed the felines, clean cages, screen clients for adoptions, work directly with the cats as caretakers, and serve in the retail area. (272-3777, houseofmews.com)
Humane Society of Memphis and Shelby County
Walking dogs, petting cats, cleaning cages, providing foster homes for animals, talking to groups about humane care of pets, delivering newsletters, and helping at mobile adoption events are just a few of the ways to help the HSMSC, located near Shelby Farms. (937-3900, memphishumane.org)
Court Appointed Special Advocates
A Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) is a trained community volunteer assigned to an abuse or neglect case by a judge to represent the best interest of the child involved. With the support of a program director and staff social workers, the volunteer makes an in-depth investigation into a child's case, produces a written report, and makes recommendations to the judge or referee on the child's behalf. (522-0200, memphiscasa.org)
Exchange Club Family Center
The Exchange Club Family Center provides prevention, therapeutic intervention, and educational and support programs for children and families who are dealing with the traumatic effects of child abuse and domestic violence. Volunteers are needed for child care, tutoring, mentoring, fund-raising, and special events. (276-2200, exchangeclub.net)
Youth Villages is one of the leading private providers of help to children, and the families of children, with serious emotional and behavioral problems. Volunteers serve as mentors, tutor in academics or job skills, assist with special events or fund-raising efforts, provide administrative assistance, and teach a talent or skill. (251-4826, youthvillages.org)
Clovernook Center for the Blind & Visually Impaired
Clovernook Center for the Blind & Visually Impaired works to foster independence and promote the highest quality of life for those with visual impairments. Volunteers are needed to transport clients, read to them, serve as companions in a trusting relationship, work in the Braille production facility, or perform administrative tasks. (523-9590, clovernook.org)
Memphis Center for Independent Living
The Memphis Center for Independent Living is a disability rights and advocacy organization. Volunteers are needed to carry out the center's various programs, perform administration functions, and assist the staff, most of whom have disabilities. (726-6404, mcil.org)
Mid-South Association for Retarded Citizens
The purpose of Mid-South Association for Retarded Citizens (Mid-South Arc) is to empower people with developmental disabilities and mental retardation to achieve their full potential. The Arc has a wide variety of volunteer opportunities, including teaching, communications, advocacy, mentoring, and office/clerical work. (327-2473, arcmidsouth.net)
Raymond Skinner Center
The Raymond Skinner Center's mission is to provide community-based recreational opportunities for those with physical and/or mental disabilities in a safe, attractive facility. Volunteers can assist with after-school programs, summer camp, weekly dances, and other activities and programs. (272-2528, cityofmemphis.org)
WYPL Talking Library
WYPL FM 89.3 provides the visually im-paired and physically handicapped in Shelby County timely access to the news and other printed information over the radio. Volunteers read magazine and newspaper stories on the air. (415-2752, memphislibrary.org/wypl)
Church Health Center / Hope and Healing
The Church Health Center provides health care for uninsured working people and their families. All types of health professionals are needed to staff the clinic on a volunteer basis during evenings and Saturdays. The center is also seeking dependable, dedicated volunteers to make phone calls, do clerical work, sort medicine, and perform other tasks. (272-7170, churchhealthcenter.org)
Crisis Center of Memphis
The Crisis Center is a free telephone hotline available 24/7. Volunteers receive training on how to provide confidential telephone counseling to individuals who are suicidal, in emotional distress or physical danger, or experiencing various types of crises. (274-7477; suicide hotline 1-800-SUICIDE, idealist.org/en/org/112409-119)
Friends for Life
Friends for Life provides information about HIV/AIDS and support services for those with AIDS and their families. Opportunities for volunteers include cooking, serving, and cleaning up after the Feast for Friends, a bimonthly client dinner, and filling client orders from the food pantry. Volunteers additionally assist with fund-raising and special events. (272-0855 ext. 233, friendsforlifecorp.org)
Hope House provides day care and social services to the growing number of children and their families impacted by HIV/AIDS. It assists with activities, recreation, companionship, and emotional support for affected children and their parents. Volunteers can rock babies, mentor children/parents, clean gutters, paint classrooms, rake the yard, and assist with fund-raisers and special events. (272-2702 ext. 216 or ext. 206, hopehousedaycare.org)
National Foundation for Transplants
The National Foundation for Transplants provides financial assistance, fund-raising expertise, and advocacy to organ and tissue transplant patients nationwide. Volunteer opportunities include administrative work and helping with fund-raising and special events (684-1697, transplants.org)
Hunger and Homelessness
Calvary Street Ministry
This ministry assists the homeless and those with drug and alcohol addictions. It provides a rehab program and a drop-in center for the mentally ill. Volunteers are needed to interview the homeless and to visit and interact with people at the drop-in center with programs like board games, activities, and arts and crafts. (543-0372, calvarymemphis.com)
Habitat for Humanity of Greater Memphis
Habitat builds homes for families who could not otherwise afford them, in partnership with each family. Volunteer opportunities exist for individuals, businesses, faith-based organizations, and community groups. Besides actually helping to build a house, volunteers can review applications, communicate with homeowners, serve on committees, work in the office, and assist with fund-raising and special events. (761-4771 ext. 215, memphishabitat.com)
The Food Bank
The Food Bank provides food and other grocery items to charitable feeding programs throughout the Mid-South. It also runs Kids Cafe sites and other programs, and sponsors the Feed the Need program in local grocery stores. Volunteers serve at Kids Cafe sites, sort and pack food items, clean and stock the food pantry shelves, and help in the office. (527-0841, midsouthfoodbank.org)
Many groups throughout the city operate volunteer-run soup kitchens, where those in need can obtain a good meal. Among them:
Crossway Church (388-8515, 2633 Altruria, 38134)
Emmanuel Episcopal Center (523-2617, 604 St. Paul, 38126)
First Presbyterian Church (525-5619, 166 Poplar, 38103)
Friends for Life, Aloysius Home (274-8321, 28 N. Claybrook, 38104)
Highland Heights United Methodist Church (458-5966, 3476 Summer, 38122)
Holy Community United Methodist Church (523-2485, 602 Looney, 38107)
Memphis Union Mission (526-8403, 383 Poplar, 38105)
Mid-South Peace and Justice Center (725-4990, 1000 S. Cooper, 38104)
St. John's United Methodist Church (726-4104, 1207 Peabody, 38104)
St. Luke's United Methodist Church (452-6262, 480 S. Highland, 38111)
St. Mary's Catholic Church (522-9420, 155 Market, 38105)
St. Patrick's Catholic Church (527-2542, 277 S. 4th, 38126)
Society of St. Vincent DePaul (274-2137, 123 N. Cleveland, 38104)
Literacy and Education
Memphis Literacy Council
Volunteers provide private and group tutoring to low-literate adults, work in the computer lab or office, and assist with family literacy programs for parents who want their children to become better readers. (881-6013, memphisliteracycouncil.org)
Neighborhood Christian Center
The center focuses on tutor and mentor programs for children K-12 in low-income neighborhoods. Volunteers can tutor or help children with homework, sort donated items such as clothing, perform clerical tasks including data entry, and help with special events. (881-6013, ncclife.org)
Streets is a Christian ministry providing tutoring, computer training, religious edu-cation, and summer/weekend camps to children and adolescents from low-income neighborhoods. Volunteers are needed to tutor children and adolescents, teach computer skills, and participate in club meetings. (525-7380, streetsministries.org)
Alzheimer's Day Services, Inc.
This program for Alzheimer's patients provides a safe and stimulating social en-vironment for participants in an effort to help maintain a maximum level of functioning. Volunteers assist clients with daily group activities and provide one-on-one interaction as needed. (372-4585, alzheimersdayservices.org)
St. Peter Villa
St. Peter Villa is a nonprofit skilled and intermediate care facility supported by the Catholic Diocese of Memphis. Volunteers can befriend residents, help them with daily activities, serve as small-group leaders, and assist with special outings or other events. (725-3568, stpetervilla.org)
There are also a number of national volunteer resources available on the Internet, including: